Review Summary: Looking back is for the birds
Patience is a word that Elbow are rather familiar with. After releasing three critically acclaimed albums - their debut being Asleep In The Back
back in 2001 - they remained a cult favourite, a band treasured by their fans, flirting with chart success thanks to that same fan base, but never managing to break through to become a commercial success. That patience was finally rewarded with the release of their fourth album, 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid
. That record proved to be the breakthrough Elbow had been waiting for. Aside from being a great album, it earned them mass critical acclaim, which was nothing new to the band, but also that much sought after commercial success, going straight in at number 5 in the UK album chart. It also thrust them directly into the public's conscience. Songs from The Seldom Seen Kid
seemed to be on every other TV advertisement in existence, the Coen brothers used their single 'Grounds For Divorce' on the trailer for their 2008 film Burn After Reading
. The band was also rewarded with the much coveted Mercury Music Prize in that same year. To put it simply, Elbow were everywhere. The question confronting the band, and that being asked by their ever increasing fan base was simple: Where do Elbow go from here?
The band's fifth album then, curiously titled Build A Rocket Boys!
, is a welcome relief to Elbow fans. It doesn't stray too far from the formula that landed them such success on their previous record, but they do experiment enough to keep things very interesting. On The Seldom Seen Kid
, Elbow balanced their more guitar driven songs expertly with softer ballads, allowing singer Guy Garvey to show off his gorgeous vocals amongst varying backdrops. Nothing changes here then; there are guitar driven rock songs, luscious piano ballads and eight minute epics for fans to sink their teeth into. Despite the success of their last album, Elbow are not the type of band to simply make a part 2 and cash in on that success. One of their many endearing qualities is that you can hear the time and love that has gone into making their music. Elbow could have easily caved and put a few obvious chart bothering songs on this album, but they have stuck to their principles and created an album that demands your time and attention. Take opener 'The Birds' for example, at just over eight minutes long it is a real slow burner, and quite a surprising start to the record. The track starts by utilising a light, slightly distorted guitar riff, twisting itself over a simple drum beat, with Harvey singing in his usual melancholic manner. The song builds and builds with the help of some neatly applied electronics before sweeping strings come in at around the five minute mark, lifting the track to another level. Garvey takes that as his cue, allowing his vocals to really soar along with the music. It's a beautiful song and one that makes the important point that Elbow have not sold out, they are still putting their heart and soul into their music.
Build A Rocket Boys!
is very much an album Elbow have made for themselves. While listening, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have joined the band in a private practice session. The production is excellent here, there's a real intimacy that comes across. You forget that many others will listen to these same songs. It genuinely feels like these songs are being played for you, and any other listener is simply an observer. On 'Lippy Kids', Garvey sings "Lippy kids on the corner again. Lippy kids on the corner begin settling like crows…Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys" over a backdrop of Sigur Ros-esqe picked bass and piano. It's a line that strikes such a sense of nostalgia, Garvey looking back with fondness on a time before the cynicism of adulthood could take it's grasp, willing these youths to not squander the most precious of days. It's such a relatable notion, you can't help but feel emotional as Garvey delivers these lines with the wisdom that can only come with life experience. This intimacy and ability to evoke such emotion, both lyrically and musically, is what has earned Elbow their loyal fan base. As I touched upon earlier, Elbow have many strings to their bow. Whether they are forcing you to look back at a more carefree time and drenching you with nostalgia on 'Lippy Kids', finding themselves rocking out on the most upbeat track here, 'Neat Little Rows', or stripping everything back to the basics with the acoustic guitar led 'Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl', the band is in fine form. There's nothing particularly outstanding in terms of technicality found in the instrumentation here, though there doesn't need to be. Instead the band do what they do best, crafting 11 simple, yet beautiful multi layered songs that really provide value in repeat listens. It is Garvey's voice however, that ties the whole package together. He has a voice that captures your attention instantly, at the same time both husky and silky. His delivery at times delicate and damaged, at others confident and soaring. It's hard to overstate just how good his voice is, and though the band provide a very solid platform, without Garvey, these songs just wouldn't have the same impact.
With all that being said, If you have never listened to Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys!
probably wouldn't be the best place to start. Though it has a special place in my heart, it does lack the catchiness of their previous effort. There's no epic singsongs along the lines of 'One Day Like This', or a stomping rocker like 'Grounds For Divorce', as found on The Seldom Seen Kid
. This really would be my only complaint about the record as a whole, and one that prevents me from believing that this is their definitive record. What you will find on this record however, is a band totally comfortable in their own skin, making the music that they want to make and inviting you along for the ride. I'm sure Elbow will continue to make music for a long time to come, and I have no doubt that their definitive album will come along eventually. But for now, let this beautiful sound fill you up and carry you along until that time does indeed come.